Some years back David Bowie asked the musical question, "Is there life on Mars?" Had he read A Princess of Mars
he might have known the answer.
Back in the early 60’s I fell in love. Not with a girl, (well, there were one or two cracks opened in that young heart, but we do not speak of that now) but with reading. And the brazen hussy that led me down that path was none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs. Of course there were others, all vying for my immature attention, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne, and plenty more from that gang of idiots. I remember the glee I felt when a parcel would arrive, the soft packaging that sprinkled to the floor if you opened the pull-tag a little too energetically. Lift the treasure to your nose and inhale deeply. No, wiseass, no glue involved. No glue actually needed. Paperbacks, Ace and Ballantine mostly. This was the way I got one of my first scents of the lifetime of reading that awaited. It was intoxicating. Prime among the treasures to be found in those bags were the Barsoom novels of ERB. I followed the adventures of John Carter the way readers of a certain detective followed his exploits in issues of The Strand
. Reading ERB as a kid was one of the best things about being
a kid. So one might imagine the anticipation bubbling up when I learned that a film was in the offing. Good, bad or mediocre, this was must-see territory. And to prepare it seemed that, fifty years after having first encountered Barsoom through books, it was worth giving at least some of the books a second look.
John Carter, a soldier (Civil War veteran), mercenary, and apparently occasional miner, begins on Earth. He is trapped in a cave by hostile forces, when he wishes himself, pretty much, to Mars, the god of his profession. The film of course had to come up with a better excuse than that. He is taken prisoner by a group of Tharks, a race of six-limbed, twelve-to-fifteen foot tall green warriors (think taller, thinner, ancestors of Klingons), led by one of their less bloodthirsty sorts, a fellow named Tars Tarkas. TT was most impressed by JC’s fighting prowess and his ability to leap tall building in a single bound, a benefit of having muscles adapted to the much higher gravity on a different planet. (ERB’s hero appears twenty years before that Kal-el character, and Jerry Siegel has said that JC was indeed influential in the creation of that better known super-guy.) Tarkas and Carter find common cause eventually and thus begins a beautiful friendship. TT had put a guard dog (actually a Shetland-size, many-tusked critter called a calot
) in charge of JC. But as the locals treat their gigantic ferocious domestic critters rather harshly, it turned out to be receptive to JC’s kinder treatment, so we add a loyal-to-death pet, with the blood-curdling name "Woola" for our hero. Can the girl be far behind? Not a chance.
After the Tharkian horde does battle with a race of human-like sorts, they take a prisoner, a female. Dejah Thoris is princess of the city-state of Helium (and no she does not speak with a silly-high voice) and of the book title, and is notable for her regal bearing, smokin’ looks and courage under duress. (The film pads her resume with some science credits) Having established his warrior cred by kicking several Tharkian butts, JC has some wiggle room among Thark society and manages to learn a fair bit. He is, naturally, curious about the new resident.
Oh, there is one other item missing from the checklist, the baddie. Well, there are several, a crude Thark leader, monsters aplenty, but most of all a professional sneak-thief-liar-betrayer of a Thark named Sarkoja, who does all she can to foil TT and JC in whatever they might want to do. All she lacks is a broom and some striped socks. [The film includes her, but substitutes a different evil-doer for many of the story’s later intrigues.]
Ok, so this is not exactly great literature. Sweden will not be calling any time soon. Carter finds himself in a seemingly endless series of battles, large and small. People are captured. People fight. People flee. Friends help friends. Baddies behave badly. No one really changes much. Oh, they rise in rank and esteem, and prove their mettle, and some character is revealed in time, but really, nothing is told about these people that we did not know very early on. There is silliness and many shortcuts are taken. ERB makes use of deus ex machina
so much he must have had a mechanic on call. Carter learns that a large amount of Martian communications occurs via telepathy and bingo, he is telepathic too. What luck! Also, Martian language has devolved to mostly a single tongue. No, really. And he learns it in a twinkling, with the help of a kindly female Thark named Sola. Whenever someone needs a rescue there is always a rescuer, either now or eventually. The cavalry comes riding over the hill a bit too often to avoid eye-rolling. The fights are pretty much pro-forma, with almost mandatory nods to the honor and skill of the thousands of opponents, after, of course, Carter knocks them out or kills them with a single blow to the chin. Puh-leez.
In between, Burroughs offers bits and pieces of his vision of life on Mars. We learn how Thark children are joined with parents, get some info on Barsoomian visions of death and afterlife, consider a bit the problem of scarce air, and may wonder at the ancient human ruins now occupied by other species. They have some nifty tech on Barsoom as well, having discovered a special 9th ray of light that is used for energy. Radium is a useful power source as well. Airships of all sizes speed about, but seem to function mostly as boats with negative draft. There will be swashbuckling.
There are some elements in the book that do not travel well through the years. The women have some wonderful qualities but there is little e-quality to be found. Also, slavery is still a very active element of Martian society, and while ERB shows sundry characters shackled to those chains, and does his best to free those, he does not seem all that upset about the institution. In one commentary on communistic elements of Tharkian society, ERB notes
Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common.
This was published in 1912, so a quote like this might not have stuck out so much back then. Of course there are many much more ancient items that seem quaint today, such as
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.
I guess ownership is in the eye of the beholder.
Social systems seem to be widely of the royal persuasion, although combat figures large in determining leadership in some groups. And just as girls have been led to hope for a prince to come to the rescue, so here our hero is not panting after any ordinary female. Dejah is a bona fide , card-carrying princess.
Then, there are some elements that might stand up rather well. Carter applies his knowledge of animals to persuade the locals to treat their beasties much better. The moral superiority of races is not at all determined by color, or in this case, even sentient species. Honesty, motherhood, and I am certain that if the ingredients grew there, apple pie would come in for some ERB support. Courage is also a highly valued trait. Physical prowess in battle is paramount here.
Ok, so bottom line. This is a very dated book. It is, after all, one hundred years old. It contains antiquated, sometimes offensive notions. Many of the characters are pretty thinly drawn. But this was not intended to be a thoughtful, adult novel. It is pulp fiction, literally, as Barsoom made its first public appearance in All-Story Magazine
in 1912, and its focus is on three things, action, action and action. Burroughs was appalled that people got paid to write the trash that appeared in such publications and said, “I could write stories just as rotten.” If that is ok with you, then A Princess of Mars
is a fun read, a buddy movie with a bit of love interest, (no real sex, although a fair bit of nakedness) a lot of fighting, capturing and being captured and escaping, a nifty vision of a faraway place. Overall, good fun. It helps to be a ten-year-old boy. Look at those cavemen go.